The 8-track tape (formally Stereo 8; commonly called eight-track cartridge, eight-track tape, and eight-track) is a magnetic-tape sound recording technology that was popular from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, when the Compact Cassette tape, which predated 8-track, surpassed it in popularity for pre-recorded music. The format is obsolete and was relatively unknown outside the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The main advantage of the 8-track tape cartridge is that it does not have to be "flipped over" to play the alternative set of tracks.
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|Media type||Magnetic tape endless loop|
|Encoding||Stereo analog signal|
|Capacity||Four stereo channels|
|Read mechanism||Tape head|
|Write mechanism||Magnetic recording head|
|Developed by||Lear Industries|
|Extended from||Fidelipac / Mohawk cartridge|
The Stereo 8 Cartridge was created in 1964 by a consortium led by Bill Lear, of Lear Jet Corporation, along with Ampex, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Motorola, and RCA Victor Records (RCA - Radio Corporation of America). It was a further development of the similar Stereo-Pak four-track cartridge, which had been introduced by pioneering businessman and engineer Earl "Madman" Muntz, who promoted and sold consumer electronics to the American public at the time. Lear had tried to create an endless-loop wire recorder in the 1940s but gave up in 1946, only to be reinspired by Muntz's four-track design in 1963. Muntz's design had itself been adapted from the Fidelipac cartridge, which in turn had been developed by George Eash. A later quadraphonic (four-channel sound, as opposed to earlier, more widely used stereo/two-channel sound) version of the format was announced by RCA in April 1970 and called first Quad-8 and later Q8.
The original format for magnetic tape sound reproduction was the reel-to-reel tape recorder, first available in the United States in the late 1940s, but too expensive and bulky to be practical for amateur home use until well into the 1950s. Loading a reel of tape onto the machine and threading it through the various guides and rollers proved daunting to some casual users—certainly, it was more difficult than putting an LP record on a record player and flicking a switch. Because in early years, each tape had to be dubbed from the master tape in real-time to maintain good sound quality, prerecorded tapes were more expensive to manufacture, and costlier to buy, than vinyl records which could be stamped much more quickly than their own playing time.
To eliminate the nuisance of tape-threading, various manufacturers introduced cartridges that held the tape inside a metal or plastic housing to eliminate handling. Most were intended only for low-fidelity voice recording in dictation machines. The first tape cartridge designed for general consumer use, including music reproduction, was the Sound Tape or Magazine Loading Tape Cartridge (RCA tape cartridge), introduced in 1958 by RCA. Prerecorded stereophonic music cartridges were available, and blank cartridges could be used to make recordings at home, but the format failed to gain popularity.
Development of tape cartridges
The endless loop tape cartridge was first designed in 1952 by Bernard Cousino around a single reel carrying a continuous loop of standard 1/4-inch, plastic, oxide-coated recording tape running at 3.75 in (9.53 cm) per second. Program starts and stops were signaled by a one-inch-long metal foil that activates the track-change sensor.
Inventor George Eash invented a cartridge design in 1953, called the Fidelipac cartridge. The Eash cartridge was later licensed by manufacturers, notably the Collins Radio Company, which first introduced a cartridge system for broadcasting at the National Association of Broadcasters 1959 annual show. Fidelipac cartridges (nicknamed "carts" by DJs and radio engineers) were used by many radio stations for commercials, jingles, and other short items. Eash later formed Fidelipac Corporation to manufacture and market tapes and recorders, as did several others, including Audio-Pak (Audio Devices Corp.).
There were several attempts to sell music systems for cars, beginning with the Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi of the late 1950s (which used discs). Entrepreneur, marketer and television set dealer Earl "Madman" Muntz of Los Angeles, California, however, saw a potential in these "broadcast carts" for an automobile music system. In 1962, he introduced his Stereo-Pak four-track cartridge stereo system and tapes, mostly in California and Florida. The four tracks were divided into two "programs", typically corresponding to the two sides of an LP record, with each program comprising two tracks read simultaneously for stereo (two channel) sound playback. He licensed popular music albums from the major record companies and duplicated them on these four-track cartridges, or "CARtridges", as they were first advertised.
Introduction of Stereo 8
The Lear Jet Stereo 8 cartridge was designed by Richard Kraus while working under Bill Lear for his Lear Jet Corporation in 1963. The major change was to incorporate a neoprene rubber and nylon pinch roller into the cartridge itself, rather than to make the pinch roller a part of the tape player, reducing mechanical complexity. Lear also eliminated some of the internal parts of the Eash cartridge, such as the tape-tensioning mechanism and an interlock that prevented tape slippage. By doubling the number of tracks from 4 to 8, the recording length doubled to 80 minutes.
In 1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 demonstration Stereo 8 players for distribution to executives at RCA and the auto companies.
The popularity of both four-track and eight-track cartridges grew from the booming automobile industry. In September 1965, the Ford Motor Company introduced factory-installed and dealer-installed eight-track tape players as an option on three of its 1966 models (the sporty Mustang, luxurious Thunderbird, and high-end Lincoln), and RCA Victor introduced 175 Stereo-8 Cartridges from its RCA Victor and RCA Camden labels of recording artists catalogs. By the 1967 model year, all of Ford's vehicles offered this tape player upgrade option. Most of the initial factory installations were separate players from the radio (such as shown in the image), but dashboard mounted 8-track units were offered in combination with an AM radio, as well as with AM/FM receivers. Muntz, and a few other manufacturers, also offered 4/8 or "12-track" players that were capable of playing cartridges of either format, 4-track or 8-track. With the backing of the U.S. automakers, the eight-track format quickly won out over the four-track format, with Muntz abandoning it completely by late 1970.
The 8-track format gained steadily in popularity because of its convenience and portability. Home players were introduced in 1966 that allowed consumers to share tapes between their homes and portable systems. By the late 1960s, the 8-track segment was the largest in the consumer electronics market and the popularity of 8-track systems for cars helped generate demand for home units. "Boombox" type portable players were also popular but eight-track player/recorders failed to gain wide popularity and few manufacturers offered them except for manufacturer Tandy Corporation (for its Radio Shack electronics stores). With the availability of cartridge systems for the home, consumers started thinking of eight-tracks as a viable alternative to 33 rpm album style vinyl records, not only as a convenience for the car. Also by the late 1960s, prerecorded releases on the 8-track tape format began to arrive within a month of the vinyl release. The 8-track format became by far the most popular and offered the largest music library of all the tape systems. Eight-track players were fitted as standard equipment in most Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars of the period for sale in Great Britain and worldwide. Optional 8-track players were available in many cars and trucks through the early 1980s.
Ampex, based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, set up a European operation (Ampex Stereo Tapes) in London, England, in 1970 to promote 8-track product and musicassettes in Britain and Europe, but it struggled and folded in 1974.[verification needed] GRT Corporation, General Recorded Tape of Sunnyvale, California, was another large manufacturer which duplicated many tapes for smaller record labels; it went out of business in 1979.
Quadraphonic sound on eight-track cartridges was announced by RCA in April 1970. It employed four-channel receiver/amplifiers that balanced the sound via sliders or a joystick.
Ford was particularly eager to promote in-car quadraphonic players as a pricey option, being the only "Big Four" American automotive company to do so. The format enjoyed moderate success in the early 1970s but faded by mid-decade. Quadraphonic cartridges provided four channels of discrete sound, unlike matrixed formats such as SQ, which Columbia/CBS Records used for their quadraphonic sound vinyl records.
Early karaoke machines
Daisuke Inoue invented the first karaoke machine in 1971 called the Juke-8.
Nature and operation
An 8-track cartridge provides four pairs of stereo tracks, whereas the later quadraphonic cartridges had two sets of four tracks. The ends of the tape were spliced with a thin strip of metal that would trigger a solenoid that would cause the playback heads to automatically jump to the next set of channels. Both types of players also provided a button for manually changing channels. Due to the design of the endless loop tape, which fed from the reel in only one direction, there was no rewind control. Due to the mechanical stress on the tape, few machines offered a fast-forward control.
Quad 8 and Q8
The audio mixing process for 4 channel quadrophonic sound is different than for stereo versions of the same album. Some producers opted for full separation between channels and this was regularly used for popular music. Others chose a style in which there is only surround sound ambience or "echo" heard in the rear speakers. This type of sound, which can realistically reproduce a live concert hall experience, was commonly used for classical music. However, mixing engineers could also aim for more of a hybrid effect. In some situations sounds can even move in rotation around a three dimensional space. While rarely heard, the 4 channel effect can be quite spectacular. Quadrophonic recordings are often highly regarded among music collectors and some quad 8 tracks have become highly collectible. Beginning in the 1990s many such 4 channel recordings have been re-issued on modern digital formats such as Super Audio CD.
Milton Bradley's (MB) OMNI Entertainment System was an electronic quiz machine game first released in 1980, similar to Jeopardy! or later You Don't Know Jack video game series, using 8-track tapes for playback analog audio for questions, instructions and answers as well as digital signals in magnetic tape data storage on remaining tracks to load the right answer for counting the score. In 1978, the Mego Corporation launched the 2-XL toy robot, which utilized the tracks for determining right from wrong answers. In 1977, the Scottish company GR International released the Bandmaster Powerhouse, a drum machine that played back custom-made 8-track cartridges containing drum and percussion rhythms loops recorded with real instruments. These could be subjected to a degree of processing using the drum machine's controls, which included tempo and instrument balance.
Decline and demise
1978 was the peak of 8-track sales in the United States, with sales declining year on year since then. Eight-track players became less common in homes and vehicles in the late 1970s. The compact cassette arrived in 1963, and by the late 1970s the eight-track cartridges had greatly diminished in popularity. In some Latin American countries as well as European, the format was abandoned in the mid-1970s in favor of the smaller cassette tape which was one-third the size.
In the U.S., eight-track cartridges were phased out of retail stores by late 1982 and into early 1983. Some titles were still available as eight-track tapes through Columbia House and RCA (BMG) Music Service Record Clubs until late 1988. Radio Shack (Tandy Corporation) continued to sell blank eight-track cartridges and players for home recording use under its Realistic brand until 1990.
The professional broadcast cart format survived for more than another decade for jingles, advertisements, station identifications, and limited music content at most local radio stations, before being replaced by computer-generated sound in the 1990s. It persisted for relatively short sound loops where starting from the beginning was more important than other criteria. The endless loop tape concept continued to be used in newer movie projectors, though their tape spool is actively rotated and not drawn by tension on the film. That technology is now being supplanted by digital cinema.
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